Tackle harness emerging as way to keep youth football safe
ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Longtime Alexandria football coach Mike Empting pauses for a bit to gather his thoughts when presented with the question.
Is it harder to get kids out for football today than it was a decade ago?
"I think looking at our numbers, they've fallen off from 10-15 years ago, so I'd have to say yes," Empting said. "I think some of that had to do with when we started tackling. We used to do flag football through sixth grade and then they didn't start tackling here until they hit the middle school program in seventh grade."
That middle school level is where Empting says they have seen their most dramatic drop in participation numbers. More than 10 years ago, Alexandria's youth programs went from playing flag football to introducing tackling in fifth and sixth grade.
Empting says before that change, they used to have close to 100 seventh graders out for football many years. That's dropped to about 50-60 on average today.
"Not everybody develops at the same rate and is ready for that type of contact at that early of an age," Empting said. "I think that prevented a lot of kids from coming back out again."
Football is still the most popular sport among boys in Minnesota and on a national level. Empting sees that and continues to believe in the future of this game, but he notes that those numbers have declined some from where they were years ago.
There are different theories as to why. Some point to early specialization of young athletes in one or two sports. Others look at the growing concern among many parents with football being linked to concussions as research continues to come out on the topic.
A safer way to play
The loss in numbers is a trend Alexandria coaches want to get ahead of because they believe so much in this sport.
It's more than a game, they say. It's a teaching opportunity where young men learn life lessons.
"My best friends were developed through football," Alexandria assistant coach Russ Hinrichs said. "The people I coach with, the idea of teamwork and determination and competitiveness and learning how to work together with everybody. I think that's what life's all about."
That is why they were determined to do something in an attempt to keep more kids out in Alexandria. This past fall season was the first time players at the fifth-grade level have used a product called the Tacklebar harness.
Kids still wear a helmet and pads, but the harness is worn outside of the jersey with two foam bars on the back. A player is downed by tearing off the foam Tacklebar.
The harness takes tackling out of the game but is meant to teach kids proper tackling technique by making them lead with their shoulder, wrap and then rip the bar off. That keeps their head to the side, away from the impact of the tackle.
Alexandria's Dustin Thornburg coached one of the fifth-grade teams this fall that used the Tacklebar, with his son, Brett, playing on the team.
"There was a learning curve with them because it's new," Thornburg said. "You're learning how to practice with them. It's tough for an elementary kid to find the balance of how hard to go."
Thornburg played college football at the University of North Dakota. He's coached at the youth level for many years and says he was approached by others when parents first heard about going to the Tacklebar for fifth-graders in Alexandria.
"They had a sense that that's just the same thing as flag and somehow that's a disservice to the kids' development with football skills to use the Tacklebars," Thornburg said. "I don't see it that way at all."
Thornburg said working on all the other football skills outside of tackling — blocking, shedding blocks, passing, catching, running, etc. — are invaluable at this age as kids shift from flag football to working in pads for the first time.
"I felt this was a great transition," he said. "Overall, I was real pleased with it."
Next year, both fifth- and sixth-graders in Alexandria will play with the Tacklebar harness before they get introduced to tackling in seventh grade. The Cardinals also practiced with the Tacklebar at the high school level for the first time this past fall.
"This is a move we're trying to make to increase our numbers, to try to respond to the safety concerns that parents have," Hinrichs said. "We met with the parents prior to the year, and I think they realize all the publicity that surrounds football and trying to address the concerns around concussions. I think it's a positive and can only get better the second year we do it."
Football's link to CTE
Tacklebar, which launched in 2016, has continued to gain popularity in a short amount of time.
In October, the company announced it had entered into a partnership with the Minnesota Vikings in a joint effort to further the adoption of the harness to youth football. On Nov. 17, the Minnesota Football Coaches Association announced a partnership with Tacklebar, as well.
It is part of an effort to make the game safer with some research linking the sport to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly referred to as CTE, a degenerative brain disease.
An updated study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association released this past summer found that 177 of the 202 donated brains from deceased former football players across all levels had CTE.
Three of the 14 who had played only through high school had CTE, while the disease was not found in the two brains examined of those who played the game before high school. Forty-eight of 53 college players, nine of 14 semi-professional players and seven of eight players from the Canadian Football League had the disease. The study drew the most headlines for what it found among those who played in the NFL, with 110 of the 111 brains examined having CTE.
The study's senior author, Dr. Ann McKee, said in an interview with National Public Radio that there are cautions with the study. All the brains were donated by families of former players who had concerns about the person.
"So all the players in this study, on some level, were symptomatic," McKee told NPR.
McKee added that she believes there is a risk to playing football but that more research needs to be done, especially studies that look at young people playing the sport.
"Just like anything there is risks involved, but I also think those are athletes that have been exposed to regular physical contact for a long time," Hinrichs said of the NFL players found to have CTE in that study. "What we're talking about are kids at the youth and high school level. They're not going to be exposed to the violence and to the speed that some of those professional athletes absorb."
More changes coming?
Hinrichs, a coach in Alexandria since 1994, believes football has never been safer.
He has two sons playing flag football right now and will encourage them to play through tackle football as long as they want. Empting felt the same with his son, Michael, who just wrapped up his senior season playing quarterback and safety for the Cardinals.
"I don't know if people outside of coaching are aware how much high school, college coaches are taking this seriously and trying to make sure the game stays safe for everyone to play at all levels," Empting said. "This is a conversation that has been started and is going to continue."
Rules have been implemented in recent years at the college and NFL game to penalize, suspend or fine players for helmet-to-helmet hits.
Empting believes the use of a product like the Tacklebar is just a start at the youth level. He sees additional changes coming, with conversations already being had among coaches in Alexandria's sub-district meetings about things they could do collectively.
At the high school level, practices have already changed. Everything from fewer practices to shorter periods with very little live tackling during the week.
"We've changed the way we operate and I think our numbers have come back," Hinrichs said. "They're not where they were 10, 15 years ago when we would have 100 seventh graders. We probably now have 50. We're hoping we can bring those numbers back up by having a different option for people when they're in fifth and sixth grade."
It is the first move in what could be more on the horizon as coaches try to make the game as safe as possible for more kids to play.
"I think we're moving in the right direction," Empting said. "I think football is a great game and we have people who are looking out for the game. Youth coaches, high school coaches, USA Football and the NFL are all getting involved on ways we can make the game safer and ensure it's going to be around for a long time."